Rhiannon is described as a heroine in the first and third branches of Mabinogion. Her name may mean “The Maid of Annwfn” the Otherworld. Some scholars have linked Rhiannon to an older goddess, Rigantona (Sacred Queen) worshipped during Roman Britain, who descends from Gaulish Epona, the horse goddess.
Monuments to Epona may have been visible to the monks who wrote the Mabinogi in the early Medieval period. The Dubonni tribe of Brythonic Celts are thought to have had the horse as their tribal totem, and these people inhabited the region of Dyfed, from which the story of Rhiannon is told. It is possible that the native lore informed the evolution of Rhiannon’s character.
She is seen to be a goddess of sovereignty who bestows the right to rule the land, and the goddess of the land itself: in marrying her, a mortal king is legitimatised in his rule. Throughout her tales, she and her son Pryderi are compared to a mother mare and her foal, and we have existing accounts of Celtic chiefs engaging in inauguration ceremonies involving horses.
Rhiannon is one of the Venuses of Celtic meth. In the Mabinogi she emerges from the Otherworld through an ancestral burial mound, dazzling and golden, astride a magnificent white horse. She is accompanied by the Adar Rhiannon, three songbirds whose song can bring the dead back to life and put the living “to rest.” She utterly captivates Pwyll, the Prince of Dyfed, who gives chase. He tries in vain to keep pace, but never can catch her. For three days he tries. The faster he rides, the faster she goes; and yet when he slows down, she slows also, teasingly just out of reach.
Medieval poets make allusion to this as a metaphor for love. After all, the more desperate you pursue, the farther away love runs. Rhiannon has mercy on the poor mortal and allows him to reach her once he cries out, asking for her to stop. She teases Pwyll for not having just asked her to slow down for him before! She then declares she has chosen to wed him, rather than Gwawl fab Clud, her betrothed.
Utterly captivated, Pwyll agrees. At their wedding feast in Annwvn, Gwawl appears and tricks Pwyll into agreeing to an oath before knowing what he is being asked. Pwyll unwittingly commits to giving Gwawl the hand of his bride-to-be. After reprimanding Pwyll for his folly, she hatches a plot. She holds a second wedding feast, this time for her and Gwawl. Pwyll and his men lie in wait in the orchard outside in the orchard, disguised as beggars. Pwyll has been given an enchanted bag from Rhiannon, brought with her from the Otherworld. It can always bestow food, but can never be filled. He begs Gwawl to fill his bag with food. Gwawl is eventually persuaded to step himself into the bag and Pwyll traps him within. In order to be freed, Gwawl relinquishes his claim.
Rhiannon marries Pwyll and she becomes queen of Dyfed. When after two years she does not become pregnant, rumours spread of the strange woman from the Otherworld. By year three however, she does conceives, and births a boy on Beltane. While she sleeps, her maids neglect to notice the baby is gone. Disappeared. Fearing for their lives, they plot to frame the queen, killing a dog and smearing its blood on Rhiannon’s face as she slumbers. “The queen has eaten her young!” they cry, awakening Rhiannon and the house. Unable to convince the mortal court of her innocence, she is sentenced to an ordeal. For seven years she must sit by the gate of the castle at the horse block. Every day she must do this, and she must every day and confess her guilt of infanticide. She must then offer to carry anyone who asks on her back as a sort of horse-woman, to and from the castle and gate.
Teyrnon, lord of Gwent (Southeastern Wales) has a prize mare who auspiciously, gives birth every Beltane. Like Rhiannon’s son the foals disappear, into the night. Enough is enough, and Teyrnon sits vigil. He discovers a monstrous claw reaching through his barn window, grasping for the newborn foal. He chops off the monster’s hand. It flees, dropping behind it a golden-haired baby boy. He and his wife claim the child, naming him Gwri Wallt Euryn (Gwri “of the Golden Hair”).
Gwri grows at a supernatural pace and displays a mystical connection with his horses. As he matures, Teyrnon recognises his uncanny resemblance to his real father, Pwyll, who returns the boy to the Dyfed royal house. Reunited with Rhiannon, the queen is absolved of her crime, and her dignity is restored. Gwri is then formally named by tradition of his mother’s first words towards him: Pryderi, meaning to “cause distress” or to “cause (great) worry.” Immortal, she outlives Pwyll and goes on to guide and have adventures with her son when he becomes king.
Thoughts on Rhiannon
Rhiannon is world-famous, thanks to Fleetwood Mac’s classic song dedicated to and about her. She shares a horse-penance with Irish Macha, with whom she has been compared. Many hypothesize they are the same figure, although this has not been proven. Rhiannon is a goddess who enjoys popularity in both pagan circles and the broader culture. Part of what makes her so appealing is that we can construct a near complete narrative about her – a rarity in Celtic myth!
Complimenting this story, is an older figure. There is strong evidence of Epona’s worship throughout Britain, including shrines, statutes and epitaphs in the archeological record. Epona is associated with abundance, portrayed with richly filled cornucopia, much like Rhiannon’s never-ending bag.
Rhiannon is associated with Beltane, one of the holy days of the Celts. This day is associated with the fertility and love. Traditions of May Queens carry on to this day in secular festivals in the UK, and may be continuations of reverence to figures like Rhiannon.
The Celtic dead were interred in burial mounds. These cemeteries and those within them, were believed to be attended by maiden fate goddesses, who were functionally synonymous with the Valkyrja (Valkyries) of the Norse. These goddesses especially protected kings and chieftains. That Rhiannon emerges to choose the next king of the land after he visits such an ancestral mound is striking. The Valkyrjur, are likewise associated with magical steeds, upon whom they ride out from the Otherworld, as they are with birds (in their case, usually ravens and swans. Rhiannon’s songbirds, like her Norse sisters, the choosers of life and death, have the power to grant death or bring the dead back to life.
In Rhiannon as with Epona, we have an invitation to reflect on the horse as a sacred animal. Consider the vital role this ally has played in our evolution. Horses quite literally drove the advancement of civilisation. The ancient Celts knew the horse was worth its weight in gold. The more horses a person had, the greater the help in carving out a rich life. The partnership between king and the land he ruled, was likened to the partnership between rider and horse. If a rider does not treat his horse well, she will throw him off. In Celtic society, plague, famine, war and other ills that might befall an entire kingdom, were believed to be the result of the ruler’s failure to partner properly with his bride, the land herself. Such misfortune was thought to be the horse-goddess herself, throwing the rider from her back.
As Rhiannon bestowed sovereignty upon Pwyll, just so, humanity would not have attainted sovereignty as a species without the help of the horse. With regards to destruction of the environment, we might consider the possibility that we may be ‘thrown off the horse’ so to speak, if we continue to abuse the land we rule.
Signs and Symbols
Horses, and all things equestrian, and songbirds. The colours gold, yellow and white. Beltane (May Eve) and the month of May. Romantic faithfulness and fidelity. Magic bags, and women’s purses. Coronation, inauguration and investiture.